Last Child in the Woods
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“The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.” —Richard Louv, from the new edition

In his landmark work Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv brought together cutting-edge studies that pointed to direct exposure to nature as essential for a child’s healthy physical and emotional development. Now this new edition updates the growing body of evidence linking the lack of nature in children’s lives and the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Louv’s message has galvanized an international back-to-nature campaign to “Leave No Child Inside.” His book will change the way you think about our future and the future of our children.

“[The] national movement to ‘leave no child inside’ . . . has been the focus of Capitol Hill hearings, state legislative action, grass-roots projects, a U.S. Forest Service initiative to get more children into the woods and a national effort to promote a ‘green hour’ in each day. . . . The increased activism has been partly inspired by a best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, and its author, Richard Louv.” —The Washington Post

Last Child in the Woods, which describes a generation so plugged into electronic diversions that it has lost its connection to the natural world, is helping drive a movement quickly flourishing across the nation.” —The Nation’s Health

 “This book is an absolute must-read for parents.” —The Boston Globe
 Now includes
A Field Guide with 100 Practical Actions We Can Take 
Discussion Points for Book Groups, Classrooms, and Communities 
Additional Notes by the Author 
New and Updated Research from the U.S. and Abroad

Topics: The Environment, Parenting, Child Development , The Outdoors, Education, Family, Poignant, Informative, Exercise, Essays, and Guides

Published: Workman eBooks on
ISBN: 9781565125865
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ALSO BY RICHARD LOUV

The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual World

Fly-Fishing for Sharks: An American Journey

The Web of Life

FatherLove

101 Things You Can Do for Our Children’s Future

Childhood’s Future

America II

LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS

Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Updated and Expanded

RICHARD LOUV

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

For Jason and Matthew

There was a child went forth every day

And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,

Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,

And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover,

and the song of the phoebe-bird,

And the Third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter,

and the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf . . .

—WALT WHITMAN

I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.

—A FOURTH-GRADER IN SAN DIEGO

A word about this edition

This edition of Last Child in the Woods contains reporting on, and citations for, research that has emerged since the book was first published in 2005. It also reflects the growing international concern about nature deficit in children and the corresponding social movement that has emerged in the United States, Canada, and other countries. Included is the Field Guide, created especially for this edition, with a progress report by the author, Discussion Questions, an expanded Suggested Reading section, and 100 Practical Actions that can help foster changes in our schools, families, and communities that are essential to healthy childhood development.

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

PART I : THE NEW RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHILDREN AND NATURE

1. Gifts of Nature

2. The Third Frontier

3. The Criminalization of Natural Play

PART II: WHY THE YOUNG (AND THE REST OF US) NEED NATURE

4. Climbing the Tree of Health

5. A Life of the Senses: Nature vs. the Know-It-All State of Mind

6. The Eighth Intelligence

7. The Genius of Childhood: How Nature Nurtures Creativity

8. Nature-Deficit Disorder and the Restorative Environment

PART III: THE BEST OF INTENTIONS: WHY JOHNNIE AND JEANNIE DON’T PLAY OUTSIDE ANYMORE

9. Time and Fear

10. The Bogeyman Syndrome Redux

11. Don’t Know Much About Natural History: Education as a Barrier to Nature

12. Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?

PART IV: THE NATURE-CHILD REUNION

13. Bringing Nature Home

14. Scared Smart: Facing the Bogeyman

15. Telling Turtle Tales: Using Nature as a Moral Teacher

PART V: THE JUNGLE BLACKBOARD

16. Natural School Reform

17. Camp Revival

PART VI: WONDER LAND: OPENING THE FOURTH FRONTIER

18. The Education of Judge Thatcher: Decriminalizing Natural Play

19. Cities Gone Wild

20. Where the Wild Things Will Be: A New Back-to-the-Land Movement

PART VII: TO BE AMAZED

21. The Spiritual Necessity of Nature for the Young

22. Fire and Fermentation: Building a Movement

23. While It Lasts

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

NOTES

SUGGESTED READING

INDEX

A FIELD GUIDE TO LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS

INTRODUCTION

ONE EVENING WHEN my boys were younger, Matthew, then ten, looked at me from across a restaurant table and said quite seriously, Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?

I asked what he meant.

Well, you’re always talking about your woods and tree houses, and how you used to ride that horse down near the swamp.

At first, I thought he was irritated with me. I had, in fact, been telling him what it was like to use string and pieces of liver to catch crawdads in a creek, something I’d be hard-pressed to find a child doing these days. Like many parents, I do tend to romanticize my own childhood—and, I fear, too readily discount my children’s experiences of play and adventure. But my son was serious; he felt he had missed out on something important.

He was right. Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.

Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.

As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.

This book explores the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, and the environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual implications of that change. It also describes the accumulating research that reveals the necessity of contact with nature for healthy child—and adult—development.

While I pay particular attention to children, my focus is also on those people born during the past two to three decades. The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assume are devoted to nature. Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, summer camp is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear—to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream—while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.

A century ago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced that the American frontier had ended. His thesis has been discussed and debated ever since. Today, a similar and more important line is being crossed.

Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. That lesson is delivered in schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities. Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom—while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. Well-meaning public-school systems, media, and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields. In the patent-or-perish environment of higher education, we see the death of natural history as the more hands-on disciplines, such as zoology, give way to more theoretical and remunerative microbiology and genetic engineering. Rapidly advancing technologies are blurring the lines between humans, other animals, and machines. The postmodern notion that reality is only a construct—that we are what we program—suggests limitless human possibilities; but as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience.

Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies. As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.

Reducing that deficit—healing the broken bond between our young and nature—is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it. The health of the earth is at stake as well. How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes—our daily lives. The following pages explore an alternative path to the future, including some of the most innovative environment-based school programs; a reimagining and redesign of the urban environment—what one theorist calls the coming zoopolis; ways of addressing the challenges besetting environmental groups; and ways that faith-based organizations can help reclaim nature as part of the spiritual development of children. Parents, children, grandparents, teachers, scientists, religious leaders, environmentalists, and researchers from across the nation speak in these pages. They recognize the transformation that is occurring. Some of them paint another future, in which children and nature are reunited—and the natural world is more deeply valued and protected.

During the research for this book, I was encouraged to find that many people now of college age—those who belong to the first generation to grow up in a largely de-natured environment—have tasted just enough nature to intuitively understand what they have missed. This yearning is a source of power. These young people resist the rapid slide from the real to the virtual, from the mountains to the Matrix. They do not intend to be the last children in the woods.

My sons may yet experience what author Bill McKibben has called the end of nature, the final sadness of a world where there is no escaping man. But there is another possibility: not the end of nature, but the rebirth of wonder and even joy. Jackson’s obituary for the American frontier was only partly accurate: one frontier did disappear, but a second one followed, in which Americans romanticized, exploited, protected, and destroyed nature. Now that frontier—which existed in the family farm, the woods at the end of the road, the national parks, and in our hearts—is itself disappearing or changing beyond recognition.

But, as before, one relationship with nature can evolve into another. This book is about the end of that earlier time, but it is also about a new frontier—a better way to live with nature.

PART I

THE NEW RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHILDREN AND NATURE

Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of oursNature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her childrenas the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU

1. Gifts of Nature

When I see birches bend to left and right . . .

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

—ROBERT FROST

IF, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, we tramped through forests of Nebraska cottonwoods, or raised pigeons on a rooftop in Queens, or fished for Ozark bluegills, or felt the swell of a wave that traveled a thousand miles before lifting our boat, then we were bound to the natural world and remain so today. Nature still informs our years—lifts us, carries us.

For children, nature comes in many forms. A newborn calf; a pet that lives and dies; a worn path through the woods; a fort nested in stinging nettles; a damp, mysterious edge of a vacant lot—whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood. It serves as a blank slate upon which a child draws and reinterprets the culture’s fantasies. Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.

These are some of the utilitarian values of nature, but at a deeper level, nature gives itself to children—for its own sake, not as a reflection of a culture. At this level, inexplicable nature provokes humility.

As the preeminent nature poet Gary Snyder writes, we attach two meanings to the word nature, which comes from the Latin natura—birth, constitution, character, course of things—and beyond natura, nasci—to be born. In its broadest interpretation, nature includes the material world and all of its objects and phenomena; by this definition, a machine is part of nature. So is toxic waste. The other meaning is what we call the outdoors. By this connotation, a man-made thing is not a part of nature, but apart from nature. On its face, New York City may not appear natural, but it does contain all manner of hidden, self-organizing wild places, from the organisms secreted within the humus of Central Park to the hawks that circle above the Bronx. In this sense, a city complies with the broadest laws of nature; it is natural (as a machine is part of nature), but wild in its parts.

When considering children in nature, one hungers for a richer description, a definition with more breathing room—one that does not include everything as natural or restrict nature to virgin forest. Snyder is drawn to poet John Milton’s phrase, a wilderness of sweets. Milton’s usage of wilderness catches the very real condition of energy and richness that is so often found in wild systems. A ‘wilderness of sweets’ is like the billions of herring or mackerel babies in the ocean, the cubic miles of krill, wild prairie grass seed . . . all the incredible fecundity of small animals and plants, feeding the web, he explains. But from another side, wilderness has implied chaos, eros, the unknown, realms of taboo, the habitat of both the ecstatic and the demonic. In both senses it is a place of archetypal power, teaching, and challenge. When we think of children and the gifts of nature, this third, more bountiful understanding is helpful. For the purpose of this book, when I use the word nature in a general way I mean natural wildness: biodiversity, abundance—related loose parts in a backyard or a rugged mountain ridge. Most of all, nature is reflected in our capacity for wonder. Nasci. To be born.

Though we often see ourselves as separate from nature, humans are also part of that wildness. My earliest memory of using my senses, and sensing wonder, came on a cold spring morning in Independence, Missouri. I was perhaps three years old, sitting in a dry field behind my grandmother’s peeling Victorian home. Nearby, my father worked, planting a garden. He threw down a cigarette—as many were likely to do in that age, when Midwesterners habitually tossed refuse on the ground, or launched beer bottles and soda cans and cigarette butts from their car windows, sparks flying in the wind. The dry grass caught fire. I remember the exact sound of the flames and smell of the smoke and the whoosh of my father’s leg and foot as he stamped and stepped quickly to chase the fire as it skipped across the field.

In this same field, I would walk around the fallen fruit from a pear tree, hold my nose and bend at the waist, a careful distance from the small mounds of ferment, and then experimentally inhale. I would sit down among the decaying fruit, attracted and repulsed. Fire and fermentation . . .

I spent hours exploring the woods and farmland at the suburban edge. There were the Osage orange trees, with thorny, unfriendly limbs that dropped sticky, foul fruit larger than softballs. Those were to be avoided. But within the windbreaks were trees that we could shinny, the small branches like the rungs of a ladder. We climbed fifty, sixty feet off the ground, far above the Osage windbreak, and from that vantage looked out upon the old blue ridges of Missouri, and the roofs of new houses in the ever-encroaching suburbs.

Often I climbed alone. Sometimes, lost in wonderment, I’d go deep into the woods, and imagine myself as Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, and strip off most of my clothes for the ascent. If I climbed high enough, the branches thinned to the point where, when the wind came, the world would tip down and up and around and up and to the side and up. It was frightening and wonderful to surrender to the wind’s power. My senses were filled with the sensations of falling, rising, swinging; all around me the leaves snapped like fingers and the wind came in sighs and gruff whispers. The wind carried smells, too, and the tree itself surely released its scents faster in the gusts. Finally, there was only the wind that moved through everything.

Now, my tree-climbing days long behind me, I often think about the lasting value of those early, deliciously idle days. I have come to appreciate the long view afforded by those treetops. The woods were my Ritalin. Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.

Where All the Electrical Outlets Are

Many members of my generation grew into adulthood taking nature’s gifts for granted; we assumed (when we thought of it at all) that generations to come would also receive these gifts. But something has changed. Now we see the emergence of what I have come to call nature-deficit disorder. This term is by no means a medical diagnosis, but it does offer a way to think about the problem and the possibilities—for children, and for the rest of us as well.

My own awareness of the transformation began in the late 1980s, during research for Childhood’s Future, a book about the new realities of family life. I interviewed nearly three thousand children and parents across the country, in urban, suburban, and rural areas. In classrooms and living rooms, the topic of the children’s relationship with nature sometimes surfaced. I think often of a wonderfully honest comment made by Paul, a fourth-grader in San Diego: I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.

In many classrooms I heard variations on that statement. True, for many children, nature still offers wonder. But for many others, playing in nature seemed so . . . Unproductive. Off-limits. Alien. Cute. Dangerous. Televised.

"It’s all this watching," said a mother in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. We’ve become a more sedentary society. When I was a kid growing up in Detroit, we were always outdoors. The kids who stayed indoors were the odd ones. We didn’t have any huge wide-open spaces, but we were always outdoors on the streets—in the vacant lots, jumping rope, or playing baseball or hopscotch. We were out there playing even after we got older.

Another Swarthmore parent added, "Something else was different when we were young: our parents were outdoors. I’m not saying they were joining health clubs and things of that sort, but they were out of the house, out on the porch, talking to neighbors. As far as physical fitness goes, today’s kids are the sorriest generation in the history of the United States. Their parents may be out jogging, but the kids just aren’t outside."

This was the mantra among parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers, and other adults across the country, even in places I would have expected to have a different view. For example, I visited a middle-class neighborhood in suburban Overland Park, Kansas, not far from where I spent my teen years. In the intervening decades, many of the woods and fields had vanished, but enough natural landscape remained to at least provide the opportunity for outside play. Surely kids still played in nature here? Not often, said several parents, who came together in a living room one evening to talk about the new landscape of childhood. Though several lived on the same block, this was the first time that some of these parents had met each other.

When our kids were in third or fourth grade, we still had a little field behind our place, said one mother. The kids were complaining about being bored. And I said, ‘Okay, you guys are bored? I want you to go out to that field, right there, and spend two hours. Find something to do there. Trust me; just try it one time. You might enjoy yourselves.’ So, begrudgingly, they went out to the field. And they didn’t come back in two hours—they came back much later. I asked them why, and they said, ‘It was so much fun! We never dreamed we could have so much fun!’ They climbed trees; they watched things; they chased each other; they played games like we used to do when we were young. So the next day, I said, ‘Hey, you guys are bored—why not go out to the field again?’ And they answered, ‘Nah—we’ve already done that once.’ They weren’t willing to let themselves do it again.

I’m not sure I understand exactly what you’re saying, responded a father. I think that my girls enjoy things like a full moon, or a pretty sunset, or flowers. They enjoy the trees when they turn—that sort of thing.

Another mother in the group shook her head. Sure, the little things, they notice, she said. But they’re distracted. She described the last time her family had gone skiing, in Colorado. "It was a perfect, quiet day, the kids are skiing down the mountain—and they’ve got their headphones on. They can’t enjoy just hearing nature and being out there alone. They can’t make their own entertainment. They have to bring something with them."

A quiet father, who had been raised in a farming community, spoke up.

"Where I grew up, a person was just naturally outdoors all the time, he said. No matter which direction you went, you were outdoors—you were in a plowed field, or woods, or streams. We’re not like that here. Overland Park is a metropolitan area now. Kids haven’t lost anything, because they never had it in the first place. What we’re talking about here is a transition made by most of us who grew up surrounded by nature. Now, nature’s just not there anymore."

The group fell quiet. Yes, much of that once-wild land was being graded and built upon—but I could see woods from the windows of the house in which we were sitting. Nature was still out there. There was less of it, to be sure, but it was there just the same.

A day after talking with the Overland Park parents, I drove across the Kansas-Missouri border to Southwood Elementary School in Raytown, Missouri, near Kansas City. I attended grade school at Southwood. To my surprise, the same swings (or so it seemed) still creaked above the hot asphalt; the hallways still shone with the same linoleum tile; the same pint-sized wooden chairs, carved and initialed with black, blue, and red ink, sat waiting in crooked rows.

As the teachers gathered second- through fifth-graders and escorted them into the classroom where I waited, I unpacked my tape recorder and glanced out the window at the blue-green ridge of trees, probably pin oak, maple, cottonwood, or perhaps pecan or honey locust, their limbs shivering and swaying slowly in the spring breeze. How often, as a child, had those very trees inspired my daydreams?

During the next hour, as I asked the young people about their relationship with the outdoors, they described some of the barriers to going outside—lack of time, TV, the usual suspects. But the reality of these barriers did not mean that the children lacked curiosity. In fact, these kids spoke of nature with a strange mixture of puzzlement, detachment, and yearning—and occasional defiance. In the years to come, I would hear this tone often.

My parents don’t feel real safe if I’m going too deep in the woods, said one boy. I just can’t go too far. My parents are always worrying about me. So I’ll just go, and usually not tell ’em where I’m going—so that makes ’em mad. But I’ll just sit behind a tree or something, or lie in the field with all the rabbits.

One boy said computers were more important than nature, because computers are where the jobs are. Several said they were too busy to go outside. But one girl, a fifth-grader wearing a plain print dress and an intensely serious expression, told me she wanted to be a poet when she grew up.

When I’m in the woods, she said, I feel like I’m in my mother’s shoes.

She was one of those exceptional children who do still spend time outside, in solitude. In her case nature represented beauty—and refuge. It’s so peaceful out there and the air smells so good. I mean, it’s polluted, but not as much as the city air. For me, it’s completely different there, she said. It’s like you’re free when you go out there. It’s your own time. Sometimes I go there when I’m mad—and then, just with the peacefulness, I’m better. I can come back home happy, and my mom doesn’t even know why.

Then she described her special part of the woods.

I had a place. There was a big waterfall and a creek on one side of it. I’d dug a big hole there, and sometimes I’d take a tent back there, or a blanket, and just lie down in the hole, and look up at the trees and sky. Sometimes I’d fall asleep back in there. I just felt free; it was like my place, and I could do what I wanted, with nobody to stop me. I used to go down there almost every day.

The young poet’s face flushed. Her voice thickened.

And then they just cut the woods down. It was like they cut down part of me.

Over time I came to understand some of the complexity represented by the boy who preferred electrical outlets and the poet who had lost her special spot in the woods. I also learned this: Parents, educators, other adults, institutions—the culture itself—may say one thing to children about nature’s gifts, but so many of our actions and messages—especially the ones we cannot hear ourselves deliver—are different.

And children hear very well.

2. The Third Frontier

The frontier is a goner. It died with its boots laced.

—M. R. MONTGOMERY

ON MY BOOKSHELF is a copy of Shelters, Shacks and Shanties, written in 1915 by Daniel C. Beard, a civil engineer turned artist, best known as one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America. For half a century, he wrote and illustrated a string of books on the outdoors. Shelters, Shacks and Shanties happens to be one of my favorite books because, particularly with his pen-and-ink drawings, Beard epitomizes a time when a young person’s experience of nature was inseparable from the romantic view of the American frontier.

If such books were newly published today, they would be considered quaint and politically incorrect, to say the least. Their target audience was boys. The genre seemed to suggest that no self-respecting boy could enjoy nature without axing as many trees as possible. But what really defines these books, and the age they represented, is the unquestioned belief that being in nature was about doing something, about direct experience—and about not being a spectator.

The smallest boys can build some of the simple shelters and the older boys can build the more difficult ones, Beard wrote in the foreword of Shelters, Shacks and Shanties. The reader may, if he likes, begin with the first [shanty] and graduate by building the log houses; in doing this he will be closely following the history of the human race, because ever since our arboreal ancestors with prehensile toes scampered among the branches of the pre-glacial forests and built nest-like shelters in the trees, men have made themselves shacks for a temporary refuge. He goes on to describe, through words and drawings, how a boy could build some forty types of shelters, including the Tree-top House, the Adirondack, the Wick-Up, the Bark Teepee, the Pioneer, and the Scout. He tells how to make beaver-mat huts and a sod house for the lawn. He teaches how to split logs, make shakes, splits, or clapboards and how to make a pole house, secret locks, an underground fort, and, intriguingly, how to make a concealed log cabin inside of a modern house.

Today’s reader would likely be impressed with the level of ingenuity and skill required, and the riskiness of some of the designs, too. In the case of the original American boy’s hogan or underground house, Beard does urge caution. During the creation of such caves, he admits, there is always serious danger of the roof falling in and smothering the young troglodytes, but a properly built underground hogan is perfectly safe from such accidents.

I love Beard’s books because of their charm, the era they conjure, and the lost art they describe. As a boy, I built rudimentary versions of these shelters, shacks, and shanties—including underground forts in the cornfields and elaborate tree houses with secret entrances and a view of what I imagined to be the frontier stretching from Ralston Street beyond the edge of the known suburban world.

Closing One Frontier, Opening Another

In the space of a century, the American experience of nature—culturally influential around the world—has gone from direct utilitarianism to romantic attachment to electronic detachment. Americans have passed not through one frontier, but through three. The third frontier—the one that young people are growing up in today—is every bit as much of a venture into the unknown as Daniel Beard experienced in his time.

The passing, and importance, of the first frontier was described in 1893, during Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition—a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. There, at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, University of Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his frontier thesis. He argued that the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explained the development of the American nation, history, and character. He linked this pronouncement to results of the 1890 U.S. Census, which revealed the disappearance of a contiguous line of the American frontier—the closing of the frontier. This was the same year that the superintendent of the census declared the end of the era of free land—that is, land available to homesteaders for tillage.

Little noted at the time, Jackson’s thesis came to be considered one of the most important statements in American history. Jackson argued that every American generation had returned to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line. He described this frontier as the meeting point between savagery and civilization. Basic American cultural traits could, he said, be linked to the influence of that frontier, including that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things . . . that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism. Historians still debate Turner’s thesis; many, if not most, have rejected the frontier, as Turner saw it, as the key to understanding American history and sensibilities. Immigration, the industrial revolution, the Civil War—all had a deep formative influence on our culture. Turner himself later revised his theory to include events that were frontier-like—the oil boom of the 1890s, for example.

Nonetheless, from Teddy Roosevelt to Edward Abbey, Americans continued to think of themselves as frontier explorers. In 1905, at President Roosevelt’s inauguration, cowboys rode down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Seventh Cavalry passed for review, and American Indians joined the celebration—including the once-feared Geronimo. The parade, in fact, announced the coming of the second frontier, which existed mainly in the imagination for nearly a century. The second frontier existed in Beard’s words and illustrations, and in the family farm, which, though already diminishing in number, continued as an important definer of American culture. Especially in the early decades of the twentieth century, the second frontier also existed in urban America; witness the creation of the great urban parks. The second frontier was a time, too, of suburban manifest destiny, when boys still imagined themselves woodsmen and scouts, and girls still yearned to live in a little house on the prairie—and sometimes built better forts than the boys.

If the first frontier was explored by the acquisitive Lewis and Clark, the second frontier was romanticized by Teddy Roosevelt. If the first frontier was the real Davy Crockett’s, the second frontier peaked with Disney’s Davy. If the first frontier was a time of struggle, the second frontier was a period of taking stock, of celebration. It brought a new politics of preservation, an immersion of Americans in the domesticated and romanticized fields and streams and woods around them.

Turner’s 1893 pronouncement found its counterpart in 1993. His statement was based on the results of the 1890 Census; the new demarcation line was drawn from the 1990 Census. Eerily, one hundred years after Turner and the U.S. Census Bureau declared the end of what we usually consider the American frontier, the bureau posted a report that marked the death of the second frontier, and the birth of a third. That year, as the Washington Post reported, in a symbol of massive national transformation, the federal government dropped its long-standing annual survey of farm residents. Farm population had dwindled so much—from 40 percent of U.S. households in 1900 to just 1.9 percent in 1990—that the farm resident survey was irrelevant. The 1993 report was surely as important as the census evidence that led to Turner’s obituary for the frontier. If sweeping changes can be captured in seemingly trivial benchmarks, the decision to end the annual report is one, reported the Post.

This new, symbolic demarcation line suggests that baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964—may constitute the last generation of Americans to share an intimate, familial attachment to the land and water. Many of us now in our forties or older knew farmland or forests at the suburban rim and had farm-family relatives. Even if we lived in an inner city, we likely had grandparents or other older relatives who farmed or had recently arrived from farm country during the rural-to-urban migration of the first half of the twentieth century. For today’s young people, that familial and cultural linkage to farming is disappearing, marking the end of the second frontier.

The third frontier is populated by today’s children.

Characteristics of the Third Frontier

In ways that neither Turner nor Beard could have imagined, the third frontier is shaping how the current generation, and many to come, will perceive nature.

Not yet fully formed or explored, this new frontier is characterized by at least five trends: a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origins; a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals; an increasingly intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals; the invasion of our cities by wild animals (even as urban/suburban designers replace wildness with synthetic nature); and the rise of a new kind of suburban form. Most characteristics of the third frontier can be found in other technologically advanced countries, but these changes are particularly evident in the United States (if only because of the contrast with our frontier self-image). At first glance, these characteristics may not seem to fit together logically, but revolutionary times are seldom logical or linear.

In the third frontier, Beard’s romantic images of the outdoor child seem as outdated as nineteenth-century depictions of the Knights of the Round Table. In the third frontier, heroes previously associated with the outdoors are irrelevant; the real Davy Crockett, who symbolized the first frontier, and even Disney’s Davy, from the second frontier, are gone and nearly forgotten. A generation that came of age wearing buckskin jackets and granny dresses is now raising a generation for whom all fashion—piercing, tattoos, and all the rest—is urban.